As we view the things and events in our life we see that each has its own lifetime: each goes through periods of formation, growth, maturity, decay, and finally passing away. This isn’t just true for living things – each thought going through your mind, each cloud in the sky, the traffic jam this morning – everything goes through these phases. Whether this lifetime is the few seconds it takes for your frustration with the driver in front of you to come and go, or the unimaginable number of years our galaxy will take to finally burn out, the general process is the same.
We can also see the process at work in our own mind. Each thought, each feeling – all go through the mind and occupy it while moving through their lifetimes. And we can see these little lifetimes interweaving to form larger ones: an idea comes up and we work through it, feeling various emotions as we foresee the possible outcomes, and eventually we come to some conclusion and either act on the idea or set it aside. These larger lifetimes are what we’re calling “stories”, and they too go through all the life phases and eventually pass away, making room for the next one. As these stories run through the mind, one after the other, we can see them forming a cycle.
In Buddhism this cycle is at the root of the notion of reincarnation and is part of the condition called Samsara. Birth, suffering, decay, death, rebirth, suffering, decay, death, rebirth … the process continues on and on. This usually refers to the physical body’s lifetime, but now we’ve seen that it also applies to the stories going through our mind. We’re experiencing a mini-lifetime with each thought and feeling and with each story built from these thoughts and feelings.
Our usual view of this cycle is fearful – enjoy life while you can because all too soon it will come to a bad end. But it doesn’t have to be this way - we can embrace this natural cycle and transform our view of it from one of fear into one of serenity; from an emphasis on loss of life to a balance of all the phases. This is the foundation of the third step to mindfulness, the step forward into the integration of the essential, objective and subjective realms. We’ll begin this transformation by mapping the phases of the cycle of Samsara onto those three realms:
|PHASES OF SAMSARA||THREE-STEP REALMS|
The “seam” in the Samsaric cycle is the point of death - this is the fearful spot. Here is where we lose our cherished thing; whether it’s the end of an enjoyable book or the end of our physical life, we view it with dread. But by mapping the life phases to the three realms, we can alter our view of this seam – instead of being the fearful point of death, it becomes the restful return to Presence.
But a piece is missing. Note that Orientation doesn’t fit anywhere in our map. In Samsara we never let go of our stories – they roll on into the future, and the next life coalesces around them. This is the key to how we can use the realms: we can transform the cycle of Samsara into the cycle of mindfulness by consciously injecting the Orientation step into the cycle. Instead of clinging to the story until it dissolves away, as soon as we recognize it has formed we can let it go by stepping back into Orientation. Then we can clear the slate and rest in Presence until the next “rebirth” – the next step forward into Discovery.
In Zen we’re not so concerned with whether or not there is an afterlife, but rather with seeing just what it is that would go on after the death of the physical body. What is the innermost essence of your life right now?